Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest

Peter Wood

In June 1799, twenty-nine year old Alexander von Humboldt set out on his voyage of discovery to South America. He explored for five years and spent the next twenty-one years writing his multivolume masterpiece, Kosmos. It lays out not only astonishingly detailed knowledge of South American botany and geology, but new concepts of how to observe and record natural phenomena. He studied temperature, magnetism, volcanoes, and much more. Many abridged versions of his work can be found in English. But his diary alone ran to more than 4,000 pages. The sheer abundance of his writing stands in the way of his becoming a writer with whom most readers gain a sense of ease or real familiarity. Apart from devoting yourself to decades of study, you can know von Humboldt only by extract and synopsis.

The German university, devoted to scientific inquiry, became known as the Humboldtisches Bildungsideal—Humboldt’s ideal. The term actually used in reference to Alexander’s older brother, Wilhelm, a linguist, diplomat, and educational reformer, who developed the ideas that research and study should be united, and that science and the arts should be integrated. But Alexander’s ideas fed into this ideal as well and in 1949 the University of Berlin was renamed Humboldt University of Berlin in honor of both brothers.

The English term Humboldtian university is still used in America today, but usually with an edge of derision, as if the very idea of a comprehensive education that aims to integrate broad learning in the sciences and culture is beyond practical reach and may be undesirable anyway. In the postmodern university, the dual reign of specialization and multicultural fragmentation has taken the place of an ideal of holistic general education.

America’s research universities were founded in the nineteenth century in conscious emulation of the Humboldtian ideal, but gradually lost their intellectual cohesion. They first turned into what University of California president Clark Kerr in 1963 called the “multiversity,” which disaggregated itself even further into today’s antiversity, in which the pursuit of knowledge has been supplanted by corrosive skepticism towards the idea of there being any unified foundation beneath the many particular things we think we “know.” The boundary between knowledge and mere opinion falls away, and the word “knowledge” itself is sometimes discarded (by those in the know!) who favor the pluralist idea of “knowledges.” Thus we see books such as Knowledges: Culture, Counterculture, Subculture (1999); Adventures in Human Knowledges and Beliefs (2014); The Anthropology of Knowledges (2018); and An Ecology of Knowledges (2020)—none of which I will review here. Humboldt stands ever more distant from contemporary forms of education and intellectual inquiry, though he remains a figure of distant approbation.

Andrea Wulf and Lillian Melcher have published a work of what they call “graphic nonfiction,” titled The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt (Pantheon, 2019). It provides a narrative of his voyages seen through the recollections of the man as he approaches age ninety. Melcher’s watercolors fill most of the pages while Wulf provides speech balloons in addition to an abundance of first-person text, sometimes verbatim from von Humboldt, and sometimes lightly adapted to the needs of a cartoon. Wulf freely adds up-to-date commentary as well. The book, for example, illustrates how Humboldt is taught by the locals to catch electric eels by driving horses into the river. The eels tire themselves out by jumping out of the water to shock the horses until it is safe for the natives to go eel-grabbing. Humboldt’s account was deemed a fantasy by other scientists until 2016 when a scientist at Vanderbilt University documented the phenomenon.

The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt is a handsome book and evidence that graphic storytelling has earned a place in the humanities. The book will do more to bring this great scientist within reach of contemporary Americans than any work of traditional scholarship possibly could. And if we can no longer have a Humboldtian university, we can at least have a Humboldtian picture book.

A Partial History of the Whole

Humboldt as it happens makes three brief appearances in one of the books I have up for review this time: Paul Warde, Libby Robin, and Sverker Sӧrlin’s The Environment: A History of the Idea (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). He is mentioned as the “Prussian polymath and traveler of the Americas who recognized that humans change the face of the land through deforestation, desiccation, and local climate change.” (37-38) He merits a second mention for being among those far-seeing savants who early on recognized “the interconnectedness of the phenomena they studied in the world.” (155) And he occupies a footnote for comparing “climates at different latitudes and altitudes.” (197)

All three authors teach environmental history, Warde at Cambridge; Robin at Australian National University; and Sӧrlin at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden. It should be no surprise that they believe that “the environment” is a concept of immense explanatory value. They argue that it gave birth to new forms of expertise and knowledge crucial to “the future of the planet.”

Before we had that idea, they argue, we couldn’t ask questions such as “[i]s it possible . . . for the economy to grow without the environment being destroyed?” No, they answer, that question depended on the idea of “the web of interconnection and consequence of which the natural world is made.” (1) One might think that a sense of such interconnection is very old, as evidenced by most of the world’s religions and, for that matter, magical practices. The venerable anthropologist Sir James George Frazer spent a lifetime filling the thirteen volumes of his classic The Golden Bough (1890-1936), documenting the universal human tendency to believe in the magical interconnectedness of things. So it is a bit of surprise to learn from Warde, Robin, and Sӧrlin that the key year in the conceptualization of “the environment” is 1948. “It was at this moment that a new idea and a new narrative about the planet-wide impact of people’s behavior emerged.”

I would have imagined that the account in chapter 3 of Genesis of how God expelled Adam and Eve from Eden for eating the forbidden fruit might have posed a similar idea for Jews and Christians well before 1948. God not only exiles the couple but tells them, “cursed is the ground because of you.” Nature itself falls because of human folly. Or if we prefer Greek wisdom, we have the story of Pandora’s unfortunate curiosity.

Of course, religious beliefs and mythology are remote from the actual concerns of these authors who see themselves as apostles of a new order grounded in science. Their language, however, gives me pause. “The environment,” they write, “has gone from being the background to the (human) world to being an idea shaped by planetary consciousness.” (2) One might imagine that were Sir James George Frazer still with us, he could consider adding volume fourteen to his opus to capture this latest iteration of magical thought. In fact the first chapter of The Environment: A History of the Idea opens with the retelling of what we anthropologists call an origin myth. It is an account of how Rachel Carson saved humanity from the scourge of chemical poisons by publishing Silent Spring in 1962. They rightly subtitle this “A Fable for Tomorrow,” but conveniently neglect to mention that the alarm raised by Carson eventuated years later in the U.S. government banning DDT—at the cost of tens of millions of lives in Africa, India, and other places over the next thirty-four years. The World Health Organization lifted the ban in 2006.

This indeed could have been an appropriate lesson in how “the web of interconnection and consequence” ensnares us all, but Warde, Robin, and Sӧrlin tell Carson’s story for a different point. They credit her with popularizing the idea that “the environment” is—their words—“a thing with its own essence that itself became vulnerable, a victim of circumstances.”

In view of the very large role the concept of “the environment” now plays in the academy as well as politics, economics, and most other human endeavors, it is handy to have this short (181 pages) book that lays out the basic theology of this secular belief system. Warde, Robin, and Sӧrlin do glance back to a pre-history—the events before 1948—which occasions the mentions of von Humboldt and other scholars who anticipated some of the creedal ideas about natural interconnectedness. But their real focus is the “integrative ingenuity” epitomized in the idea of “the environment.”

Sticking It

Chris W. Gallagher is an English professor and the vice provost for curriculum advancement at Northeastern University. His new book, College Made Whole: Integrative Learning for a Divided World (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019) would seem by its title to invoke the spirit of Alexander von Humboldt. Who better represents the concept that the learning that takes place in higher education should be “integrated”? But Gallagher never mentions von Humboldt. Had he been searching for precedent or intellectual authority for his thesis, Gallagher might well have summoned the ghost of the Humboldtian university as congenial to his own thesis.

But Gallagher is eager from the start to establish that he is a man of the urgent present, not someone hankering for the dusty past. He observes that some respond to the fragmentation of the curriculum with “a call to ‘rebundle’ higher education.” He wants none of this. “That re-appears to call for a move backward, a return to some previous moment when colleges and universities were appropriately bundled.” (3) The metaphor of a “bundle” (“just a bunch of sticks”) doesn’t suit him. He would prefer to “integrate knowledge and skills across their learning experiences.” Von Humboldt said it better, but Gallagher is in fact recapitulating von Humboldt’s concept. As far as I know, von Humboldt never analogized a proper curriculum to gathering kindling.

But what sort of integration does Gallagher have in mind? Given his disdain for the past, one might guess from the outset that it will not be an integration based on historical connection. The Introduction opens with a thoroughly up-to-the-minutes list of crises:

The ravages of climate change. Nuclear proliferation. Network-based terrorism, both physical and cyber. Political disenfranchisement, disenchantment, and discord. Growing social and economic inequality. Threats to the pillars of democracy, including separation of powers and freedom of the press. The emboldening of white supremacy and authoritarian populism. The impending automation of nearly half the U.S. workforce. (1)

This stage-setting plainly speaks the worldview of a man of the academic left. Conservatives might echo a few of the phrases but mean something by them rather different. Political disenfranchisement, for example, means something like “repressing minority group and non-citizen voters” to those on the left; it means “repressing the working and lower middle class voters of all races” to those on the right. A fairly large percentage of Americans hear the phrase “the ravages of climate change,” and say to themselves, “fake news.”

To begin a book with such an audience-dividing litany is to decide in advance that roughly half your potential readers are unwelcome. That might be the right step if your book is truly addressed to only one side of the great political and cultural divide in America, but it seems an odd choice in a book that calls for a reform that invokes what are, after all, traditionalist principles. Gallagher wants to convince his readers that liberal arts education conducted by colleges and universities (“only they”) is the path to “integrated learning.” This recipe has far more natural appeal to conservatives than to those on the political left, but Gallagher frames the matter otherwise.

The great threat as he sees it are those utilitarians who would like to “unbundle” higher education by selling skill-building individual courses to consumers. The un-bundlers embrace online education and other forms of disaggregated study that de-emphasize institutional structures such as bricks-and-mortar colleges and universities and classroom teachers who have semi-durable personal relations with their students. Indeed, it isn’t hard to find prominent advocates for views such as this, among them Charles Murray (Real Education, 2008); Glenn Reynolds (The Higher Education Bubble, 2012); and Richard Vedder (Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America, 2019). But Gallagher cites none of them and in any case bypasses their basic point, which is not to replace liberal education but to supplement it. The disaggregated alternatives may work better for students who have no particular interest in “integrated learning” or a traditional college degree. When Gallagher gets around to his own policy recommendations, low and behold, he calls for the creation of “alternative credentials” to supplement what colleges already do!

But Gallagher does have two named opponents whose views he plays against: Kevin Carey (The End of College, 2015) and Ryan Craig (College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education, 2015). Carey and Craig can rightly be called enthusiasts for MOOCs and the technology-driven disruptions of traditional higher education. Gallagher could have added Jeffrey Selingo (College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, 2013) to this list. All three belong to what might be called the Customer is King philosophy of higher education, where the “customer” is the student in search of specific training rather than an education shaped by someone else’s idea of how the parts fit together. But it would be very hard to identify a Carey-Craig-Selingo axis in contemporary higher education. Their ideas so far have had little traction.

College Made Whole: Integrative Learning for a Divided World is thus a book-length exposition of a strawman argument. The danger to integrated learning comes not from market-oriented conservatives who are looking for ways to bust a dysfunctional monopoly, but from the combination of institutional stakeholders in the status quo and aggressive promoters of intellectual entropy, almost all of whom are on the political left. Gallagher manages never to catch sight of any of that. Meanwhile he practices a kind of bonsai with the tree of liberal learning, shrinking it to the dimensions of political orthodoxy and watering it with quite a few educational clichés. Before he is done the new integrative learning includes training students to “appreciate, and participate as an active global citizen,” (190) and becoming committed diversiphiles, knowing “how to live and work with diverse others.” (73)

To be sure, von Humboldt reached these points long ago without the need to wrap them in the bromides of contemporary progressivism.

Unsettled Geography

Venturing far afield gave von Humboldt material for a lifetime of reflection. Many American college students avail themselves of a miniaturized version of such ventures. Out There Learning: Critical Reflections on Off-Campus Study Programs, edited by Deborah Curran, Cameron Owens, Helga Thorson, and Elizabeth Vibert (University of Toronto Press, 2019) offers ten essays on the post-Humboldtian experience. I’ll note in passing the growing tendency of books edited by whole expeditions of co-editors, whose division of labor is opaque. In this case, Thorson and a fifth person, Megan Harvey, wrote the introduction and the “Acknowledgments” mentions three more women for their “editorial assistance.” The book appears to be the work of a kind of women’s collaborative, which could say something about the spirit of off-campus studies programs.

The book focuses on one type of program: “short-term off-campus programs for a small group of students led by at least one instructor from the home institution that focuses on a specific topic of study in a location removed from the students’ everyday lives.” (3) These are usually called “field schools” and offer academic credit. The specificity of the topic is intriguing, but the point rapidly descends into ideology. The first sentence of the first essay commences, “As a feminist critical geographer, one of my central pedagogical aims is that students learn not to rely on a single story to explain the world around them.” And just like that we are launched into the dizzying world of postmodernism, where no master “narrative” is ever welcome. Chapter one isn’t an exception. Chapter three commences with the declaration that “[w]e are at an exciting juncture in the provision of higher education in which core values and practices are all up for interrogation.” (66) Chapter four (“Settlers Unsettled: Using Field Schools and Digital Stories to Transform Geographies of Ignorance about Indigenous Peoples in Canada”) begins with the helpful explanation that “[g]lobally, Indigenous peoples have been subjected to subordinating colonial policies for generations. [These policies] have largely been designed to silence Indigenous voices and delegitimize their cultures and governance structures in place of the settler (largely white) populations.”

All things considered, if you are interested in field schools, I would recommend trying to capture electric eels bare-handedly before venturing into this book.

Field Trips

Across the street from the American Museum of Natural History, just inside the perimeter of New York’s Central Park, at 40° 46’ 46.2” North latitude, 73° 58’ 24.1” West longitude stands a bust of Alexander von Humboldt. The park, however, has no monument to Alexander’s older brother, Wilhelm. A bust of Wilhelm can be found in Gernika-Lumo, near Bilbao in Spain, honoring his work in spreading the Basque language in Europe. There are, of course, monuments to both brothers in Berlin.

Dis-Collaborating

Field schools no doubt require participants to collaborate, but then so do most human enterprises. This issue of Academic Questions that sits open before you is the result of collaboration among three editors, several writers, and people far-off in the Philippines who work for the publisher, Springer. We do this seamlessly. But it is good to know that someone has been busy trying to invent a comprehensive theory for collaboration. Janet Salmons, an “independent researcher and writer through Vision2Lead” and a former faculty member at Capella University School of Business has published Learning to Collaborate, Collaborating to Learn: Engaging Students in the Classroom and Online (Stylus, 2019). I confess a profound lack of sympathy with Dr. Salmons’s mode of presentation as well as the substance of her book, which varies between straining after the obvious and submerging the obvious in a whirlpool of diagrams that would baffle a medieval alchemist.

To avoid copyright difficulties, I will not reproduce one of these cryptograms as it appears in the book, but offer my own diagrammatic approximation.

Inscrutable tables such as this appear on many pages. All is not darkness. On page 130 appears Table 7.1 offering a “Taxonomy of Collaborative Visual Vocabulary,” where we learn that

means “parallel” and “represent segmentation of a project into component parts that can be completed by individuals in the group, or a smaller subgroup, within the same time frame.” The shapes are from a template-making computer application called Visio, and readers who want to solve the riddling runes can hie themselves hither. Those seeking a conceptual framework to grasp the basic idea of collaboration can linger with Dr. Salmons as she explains that “[t]he taxonomy of collaboration has three main components: collaborative processes, levels of collaboration, and the trust continuum.” (12) This reviewer’s trust continuum just experienced a catastrophic failure.

Meditating

The New York Times bizarre 1619 Project launched in August 2019 attempts to declare that all of American history needs to be read through the lens of black slavery. It has attracted trenchant criticism from many important professors of American history, and the NAS has been playing its part with our own 1620 Project—named after the year in which the Mayflower Compact was signed. But there is no shortage of academics eager to join in the effort to create a radically distorted account of the American past by turning racism into the key to everything. Cyndi Kernahan professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, presumably was working on this well before the NYT launched its project, but she had fortunate timing. Her book, Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Classroom: Notes from a White Professor (West Virginia University Press, 2019) offers counsel such as:

In addition to regulating our attention, regulating our emotion is a key skill gained via mindfulness meditation that may be beneficial to our teaching. (90)

This is from a chapter on “Developing a Secure Teacher Identity.” I wonder whether someone who subtitles her book “Notes from a White Professor” has much of a “secure identity.” She plainly has considerable anxiety about her role as a teacher. Her book starts with her “lamenting how difficult the beginning of the semester can be,” the principal difficulty being “many of the students [who are] still in the very early stages of understanding” prejudice and racism. (1) Student “understanding” may be deficient on many subjects but race and racism “take on added layers of emotional and cognitive complexity.” (2) Kernahan takes it as her job to break down the students’ defenses to her message that they need to “take responsibility for their own role in racism.” (201)

I highly recommend the book to anyone who wonders how the current racial privileging and dis-privileging works out in the college classroom. Kernahan is an author who blithely assumes the credibility of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s statistics on hate crimes and President Trump’s supposed role in meteoric increases in such crimes. The reader has to swallow that and a great deal more to get the full picture of how Kernahan, with a pristine conscience, goes about the work of propagandizing her students.

Equality Under the Bus

Not everyone agrees with Professor Kernahan’s view of racial barriers in American society. Carl Cohen, professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan, and a former member of the National Board of the ACLU, has a distinctly different approach. His new book, Both Wrong and Bad: Preference by Race (Outskirts Press, 2019), launches on the first page from “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence and stays focused, first to last, on the “the moral ideal of equality.” Cohen is far from minimizing the importance of slavery and racism. “Slavery made a mockery” of the ideal of equality, and the 13th Amendment “barely dented the racism of the time.” The great enemy of equality was—and is—racial segregation. Cohen argues as an unreconstructed liberal who never accepted the post-liberal idea that affirmative action in the form of racial preferences and what NAS has called neo-segregation were the way forward towards genuine equality. He is a fierce opponent of racial discrimination. “Cleansing institutions of the remnants of race discrimination is right.” Affirmative action that ends “unequal treatment of the races” is good, but “preferences given to persons because they are members of one or another racial group are,” as he amplifies his title, “very wrong and very bad.”

Professor Cohen has been making these arguments eloquently for several decades and his new book does not, as far as I can tell, advance any new points. It is rather a passionate summing up and condensation of what he has said before. The chapters are brief and to the point: “Race Preference is Morally Wrong”; “Race Preference is Against the Law”; “Race Preference is Bad for the Minorities Preferred”; “Race Preference is Bad for Universities,” etc. I don’t think he is mistaken on any of the points. What Cohen adds to these oft-stated arguments is brilliant clarity. If you find yourself perplexed by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s woozy logic in her Grutter decision or wonder whether the College Board’s attempts to add an “adversity score” to the SATs serve a higher moral purpose, this is the book to consult first. My only criticism is that it lacks an index.

Matador

I have at hand a new novel by Scott Johnson, a wanderer of sorts whose bio places him on Wall Street, Hong Kong, and as the one-time proprietor of several New York City night clubs. He has published books on “beer drinking and golf betting games.” And naturally enough he has now turned his hand to writing a satiric academic novel, Campusland (St. Martin’s Press, 2019). I haven’t read it but I regard anyone who attempts to satirize the modern university as deserving at least as much recognition as a novice bullfighter stepping into the ring.

The ring in this case is an “ivy-like” institution called Devon University and it features in addition to the usual student types—It Girl, Literary Nerd, rogressive Alpha Dog, Feminist Victim Girl—a “feckless” college president. That alone suggests that Mr. Johnson knows whereof he writes. But—wait for it—the book also features Martika Malik-Adams, the giant-salaried Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion.

A satire of contemporary higher education always has to compete with the real thing. Our self-satirizing universities frequently exceed the imaginations of the brashest writers of fiction. But it sounds as though Mr. Johnson is on the right track. When you have exhausted the latest issue of Academic Questions, you may wish to take up Campusland.

You Didn’t Make That

Von Humboldt spoke for the deep unity of human knowledge, which is a philosophical position, though he is only secondarily thought of as a philosopher. Still, he provides an opening to what Princeton philosophy professor Scott Soames calls in his new book, The World Philosophy Made (Princeton University Press, 2019). Soames has set forth a one volume history of Western philosophy—the subtitle is From Plato to the Digital Age—with the audacious thesis that “philosophy monitors the border, ready to help plot our next move.” (xii) Philosophy, Soames says, gives us “new concepts, reinterpreting old truths, and reconceptualizing questions to expand their solution spaces.”

It is a book of many virtues, but as we are primarily focused on the university in these pages, I will extract only this poignant observation:

[T]he prevailing ethos on campus scarcely recognizes the possibility of advances in moral knowledge founded on fact-and-reason-based inquiry. Instead morality tends to be viewed by too many students, faculty, and administrators as a domain in which genuine knowledge is impossible and consensus can be reached only by relying on strong feelings and unreflective opinions backed by intimidation. (372)

That suggests a book that would reward a slow and careful reading.

Wear It Well

The well of items of academic interest never runs dry. This quarter’s item is the dust jacket. Perhaps as digital books gain ground and the paperbound books continue their colonization of the remaining bookshelves, the humble dust jacket will become a relic of the past. Let us hope not. The proverb advises us not to judge a book by its cover, but that leaves an opening for a pharisaic distinction. We can still judge a book by its dustjacket, which is typically much more informative than any cover and altogether more handsome. Moreover, an old book that has kept its dust jacket is a time machine. It may take us to the moment when a book destined to become a classic first stepped gingerly on to the stage, unsure of its reception, and sporting endorsements from long-forgotten celebrities. Or it wraps a book of little note in a period design by a now treasured artist.

Academic libraries typically strip and discard dust jackets, which is heartbreaking. Many book jackets are a delight; some are embarrassing; few are without interest. Presentation matters, even to the most ascetic scholar.

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